What CAN You Do?

We all experience unfortunate situations that throw a big old wrench in our plans.  For me recently, the wrench was a power outage on a Friday morning.   Whatever its nature, the wrench is almost guaranteed to create internal dialogue like mine when the power went out at 8AM:

     “Ugh!  How am I going to shower and get dressed in the dark before the painters arrive?“

     “Oh no, the painters!  They can’t possibly finish painting the first floor today without lights!”

     “If they can’t finish painting, I can’t get everything back in place before our company arrives!”

I glanced around at the plastic covered furniture and partially painted walls, dismay settling in.

     “It’s been such a long week.  I just can’t deal with more hassle today.”

I eyed the pile of projects on my desk. Ugh again!

     “Without power or internet I can’t get any work done today either!”

My stomach growled.  I realized I hadn’t eaten yet and without knowing how long the electricity would be out I didn’t dare open the fridge, releasing its precious chilled air.

     “Arghh, I CAN’T even eat breakfast!”

It was at this point in my monologue my phone dinged to alert me to an iMessage.  I credit that ding with interrupting my free fall into the negativity absyss.

I took a deep breath and took stock.  For five minutes I’d focused only on what I couldn’t do and hadn’t done anything to advance my morning.  The painters were still showing up that morning and our company was still showing up the next day and I needed to be ready for them.

With this awareness,  I chose a different route.  “What CAN you do to move forward?”,  I asked myself.

This question shifted my brain activity from the amygdala (a brain structure responsible for processing fear and some emotions) to the frontal lobes, an area of the brain responsible for decision making, problem solving and planning.  Within seconds I had some answers.

     “I’ll grab a lantern and it will be light enough so I CAN shower, brush my teeth and get dressed.”

     “I CAN eat some dry cereal and an apple.”

     “I CAN start a blog posting about this experience using low tech pen and paper.”

Reflecting on my experience as I wrote, I knew better than to get down on myself.  After all, the path I had traveled is one for which our brain is hardwired.  It’s called negativity bias.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D and Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, gets to the heart of my experience in his article Confronting the Negativity Bias.   In that article he shares a person “generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones.”  This is because, “Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly.”   Hanson goes on to share these stimuli alert the area of the brain called the amygdala which “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news.”  This makes going to the negative like I did and staying there, well, a no brainer.  As Hanson summarizes, we’re “primed to go negative.”

This all makes sense when you consider the evolution of the human brain. If our ancestors hadn’t been paying attention to negative stimuli, such as wild animals prone to attack, we might not be having this discussion today.  Fortunately, I’m not likely to be in imminent danger when my power goes out.  As such I need to make sure my brain is responding appropriately to the stimuli it is actually experiencing.  The good news is that this is possible with awareness and an intentional response, such as a question to shift brain activity away from the self-preserving amygdala.

I hope by reading this you’ve become a little more aware of the potential for negativity bias.  I think this awareness is especially important during the stress filled holiday season.   When have you noticed your brain getting hijacked by your amygdala recently?  What have you done to break the downward spiral?  What might you try as a result of building more awareness today?  I’d love to hear from you.



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